George Giacaman: Professor at Birzeit University, political analyst and Board of Directors member of Muwatten Institute for Democracy and Human Rights:
Dr. George Giacaman, political analyst and professor at Birzeit University, says Israel effectively obliterated the two-state solution long ago with its expansionist settlement policies in the Palestinian territories. He also says it is highly unlikely that the Israeli right in power will accept the establishment of a Palestinian state on land occupied in 1967.
In an interview with “Hosted by MIFTAH”, Giacaman confirmed that one of the objectives of the US ‘Deal of the Century” from the “rational” Zionist perspective is to save the right and save Israel itself by separating the Palestinians from Israel through some sort of political entity, which could be called a state but under Israeli guardianship. The goal of this is to preserve Israel as Jewish state and prevent the one-state solution. He warned that the United States could take measures pertaining to President Mahmoud Abbas on the back of his strong opposition to the deal, by creating some sort of political change like it has done in several other countries in the past. However, this time, the change will not be the same as it was during the time of late President Yasser Arafat.
In terms of the PLO, Dr. Giacaman says it is nonexistent, in practical terms. Meanwhile, the PA found itself in a sort of hysteria, which can be called “the statehood narrative”, throughout the course of the Oslo Accords, including when the PLC was dissolved. Some, he maintained, falsely believed this political delusion was a step towards statehood.
As per the recent meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, initiated by the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, Giacaman says he thinks it is highly unlikely that the Palestinians could greatly influence Israeli public opinion to reach a political solution. He called for a rebuilding of organizational forces in Palestinian society and at the same time ruled out holding elections given the lack of conditions needed to conduct them.
Following is the full text of the interview:
What is your take on the latest developments following the official announcement of the ‘Deal of the Century” by US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
As we know, the announcement of the ‘Deal of the Century” was postponed several times; there is the text of the deal on the internet for anyone interested in reading more about it. What’s important is to say that the deal was already underway when the United States recognized all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The “icing on the cake” was the American recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. It is unclear whether this recognition was part of the deal or not. Much has been said about the goals of this plan. For example, that it was designed to be rejected. It was also said that the goal of the deal was to help Netanyahu in the elections and also to help Trump himself with right-wing circles in the United States and that it was aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause. All of the above could be true; however, I think there are other reasons. From a “rational” Zionist perspective, I think the plan was aimed at saving Israel’s right wing and Israel itself. As we know, there are some circles within Israel, especially among writers, who believe the two-state solution is suitable for resolving the conflict. In the past, they warned that the end of the road could result in annexation, which means Israel would eventually become one state with a Palestinian majority. I think one of the goals is to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis to avoid this outcome. However, in the beginning, no one thought that this separation would manifest itself in something called a Palestinian state. For example, in an interview with “Al Quds” newspaper, in June, 2018 [Jared] Kushner spoke about self-rule but did not say anything about a state. Still, the idea of separation was there within the framework of this autonomy. I think that because of the Palestinians’ rejection and in order to apply pressure on the Palestinians, this phrase was switched with the phrase “Palestinian state.” The core of issue however, remained the same, whether regarding annexation or in terms of separating with Israel and finding a framework that from a Zionist standpoint, would fulfill some of what they consider Palestinian political “aspirations” but not rights.
Today, there is an Israeli-American committee to discuss which parts of the West Bank will be annexed. I think the American position is that the issue of annexation should not completely be left up to Netanyahu or to any future Israeli government because this will cause problems for their plan. The plan itself does not contradict with the annexation of areas it decided would be part of Israel, but no more than that. Right now, this has been left to negotiations. We are talking about nearly 30% of the West Bank, which is what they agreed on. However, they are not in consensus— at least within the plan’s four-year timeframe plan – over a larger percentage of land to be annexed. Right now, this is the situation.
Do you think the Palestinians handled the deal in proportion to the dangers it presents?
I think there was a lot of optimism among Kushner’s team, which has been around since 2017. I point to this year in particular because the “deal of the century” was part of a larger plan discussed with several Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. When Trump visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, the plan was already in place. The “deal of the century” included a path to normalization between the two sides. I think at that time, the Trump team was more optimistic than it was later on in terms of the possibility of Arab states putting pressure on the Palestinians. I think the Palestinian position, which was strong and solid under President Mahmoud Abbas, made it difficult for a number of Arab countries to pressure the Palestinians. Evidence of this is the official Saudi position, which is that any political solution must precede normalization. The unofficial position is something else. Hence, the Palestinians are using all the tools at their disposal. The main strong point is that one imperative of the deal as a ‘political solution” is the presence of a Palestinian party. If this party rejects it, there is no solution. Of course this is the predicament of the ‘deal of the century’ right now. It might include the annexation of land but not a political solution that will end the conflict like they had hoped.
Do you think the Americans will be back to implement their plan? What can we take away from the statements made by Israel’s UN ambassador regarding President Mahmoud Abbas?
It is not unlikely that they will come back at some point with this. There are indicators that cannot be completely relied on but for example, what Israel’s UN ambassador said in his speech at the Security Council about peace never happening with Abu Mazen is one. It could be that the Americans are working on a sort of political change like the US has done in many other countries. However, I don’t think this change will be similar to the one taken during late President Yasser Arafat’s time. That is, I don’t think there is a plan in place to eliminate President Abbas even though the Palestinian media considered the Israeli ambassador’s words as a threat on the president’s life. I think this is an exaggeration. The Americans might come back with this plan within the next four years if Trump is reelected or post-President Abbas.
Where does Europe stand on these political developments?
If we are talking about the EU, there are differences between its countries. At their last meeting at the beginning of February, EU foreign ministers could not agree on rejecting the ‘deal of the century’ or any political initiative because their decision must be unanimous. As we all know, Israel has been able to infiltrate several eastern European countries like Hungary, Czech Republic and Italy as well. They postponed discussion on the subject, which is the problem of any union, including the EU. However, there are positions from other countries that are more encouraging, at least from certain aspects. On other aspects, they are more discouraging. For example, the German government’s position on the issue of the ICC is completely in support of Israel.
What about the official Arab position on this deal? We saw Arab delegations participate in the press conference announcing the deal in Washington D.C. Doesn’t this weaken the Palestinians’ position?
The Arab delegations that participated in the Trump/Netanyahu press conference are known – the UAE ambassador was particularly pointed out because he is one of the active parties in building relations with Zionist groups in the United States and also in the process of normalization with Israel. These ambassadors reflect the positions of their governments, obviously. However, the majority of Arab ambassadors were not there. For the most part, the Arab countries most eager to normalize are pretty well known.
Do you think Israel has been able to infiltrate more than one Arab and Muslim arena regarding normalization?
Yes. For example, there is Sudan and Netanyahu’s meeting with Abdel Fattah Burhan. There is a clear Arab division on normalization, which is being driven by several Gulf countries but not by all of them. Look at Kuwait, for example. It has a completely different stance. We saw how the Kuwaiti Speaker of Parliament ripped up the “deal of the century”. True, it was dramatic, but it also had political dimensions. I like to see things in a broader context. If we look at the Arab uprisings, who are the people standing against the change Arab peoples are demanding? There is Tunisia for a start, but especially in Egypt and then Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and Lebanon. There are parties, or what we call the ‘deep state’ that are resistant to change because they fear this wave will catch up to them. These are the parties calling for normalization with Israel. This is the scene we have today. The Arab governments resistant to Arab uprisings and regime change are also those that support normalization.
How do you interpret the ICC’s decision to open an investigation into Israeli war crimes and then backtrack later on this decision?
To be accurate, the Palestinian media spoke a lot about opening an investigation but in reality, there was no actual decision to open an investigation but to form a committee to look into whether the ICC has legal jurisdiction in Palestine for this purpose. The reason for this is that Israel presented a legal argument claiming the ICC has no legal jurisdiction in Palestine because Palestine is not a state. After the designated time is over for this committee to present its report, then the decision will be taken. What happened is that the ICC Prosecutor announced there was evidence that war crimes had been committed and that an investigation can be opened, contingent upon the aforementioned committee’s decision. So far, there has been no decision to open an investigation. This is an important point, but Palestinian media outlets keep talking about opening an investigation and this is simply not true. We are now facing a battle because the pressures are nonstop, not only from Israel but also from the United States. They claim the ICC does not have any legal jurisdiction in Palestine. This means Palestinian diplomatic action must continue to press in the opposite direction.
We are waging a diplomatic battle and will have to wait for its outcome. Israel is very concerned about the issue of the ICC because it will create a problem for it and for many Israeli politicians and officers responsible for war crimes. What is also necessary is for the PA to withstand these pressures because in the past, there were occasions in which the PA folded, like in the case of the Goldstone Report when it decided not to follow up on it. I think things are different now, perhaps because after the ‘deal of the century’ the PA and particularly President Abbas, reached a dead end with the US and Israel in regards to any possibility for any political course. In other words, the Palestinians have nothing left to lose.
How is the Palestinian division hindering confrontation of these developments? After President Abbas’ speech at the UN Security Council, we expected that the compass would be redirected inwardly; however, things went in another direction, towards the Israeli arena, supposedly in an attempt to impact Israeli public opinion.
No doubt, the topic of the division is an important one. However, I personally think it is not as important as the media makes it out to be. The real question in regards to ending the division is: what does it mean to end it? What does it mean exactly to mend the rift? What it means is to implement signed documents -- that is, the Cairo Agreements, the first of which was signed in March, 2005 and the last in 2011. What followed was the so-called “2017 understandings”, which were partially based on the 2011 agreement. Hence, if we look at the 2011 Cairo agreement, we will find that its main provisions are not implementable and the two sides, Hamas and Fatah that is, know this. Let me point to three provisions in particular. The first is on merging the security services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is not possible in the current situation. The second is on holding elections. An attempt was made but I don’t think either side wants these elections; even if they are held, things will go back to what they were eventually. That is, Hamas will be boycotted and it will not be allowed to form a government even if it wins. In other words, the United States will not interact with it nor will a number of European countries in addition to Israel and this will create a new crisis. The third provision, which is an important one, pertains to Hamas joining the PLO. What do you think the outcome will be if it joins? Israel and the United States will declare that the PLO is a terrorist organization once again, which is unacceptable to the PA. It is clear from this agreement then, that it is inapplicable. I say the two sides do not really want reconciliation. If they really want to reconcile, there is something that logically must precede this, which is: what is the action plan for this stage? I think if reconciliation is to happen, it will happen only within the framework of a new national struggle program and not on the basis of a division of shares, which both sides are seeking.
What would this program look like?
This is the question we need to address post ‘deal of the century”, especially if Israel annexes parts of the West Bank. If there are any “positives’ to the deal of the century, it is that it may convince a lot of people that the two-state solution, according to the Palestinians’ understanding, is over, especially with the continuation of settlement building and the possibility that Israel will annex parts of the West Bank. If the two-state solution is the national endgame, there needs to be a new or renewed national project. This is the open-ended question and what is missing in public discussions. I think this is nothing new. Israel effectively cancelled out the two-state solution years ago; what’s more, the Israeli right is not likely to accept a Palestinian state. They even objected to the wording in this regard in the “deal of the century”. It is unlikely they will abandon their aspirations in terms of stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank, this is clear. That is why I say that after the Camp David negotiations ended in July, 2000 and particularly after the Taba negotiations in Egypt in December, 2001 when Ehud Barak was Israel’s Prime Minister, it was clear that even if an agreement had been reached, Barak was in no place to get this agreement passed in the Israeli Knesset. This is because the right-wing majority was projected to win the lion’s share of seats in the Knesset elections that were to take place even if this did not actually happen. There was an attempt during Olmert’s time in office in 2007 and attempts by former US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and 2014 to reach an agreement. At the time, Kerry was very frank, placing blame for the failure on the Israelis.
Where is the PLO on these developments? There have been calls for the dissolution of the PA and others that call for redefining its functions and strengthening its standing, which over the years, has eroded into the PA
In practical terms, the PLO is nonexistent. But the topic of the PLO is an important one for the reason that we should not abandon the representative framework of the PLO for all Palestinians inside and abroad. This was one of the most important achievements of the PLO. What happened is that the PLO has become conflated with the PA. That is why we need to rebuild the PLO. What’s more, it must also be within the context of an even more important vision for what the new national project will look like. Within this vision, we must ask the question of whether the PA should continue in its current form or not. What happened during the Oslo era was that the PA was struck by a sort of obsession with what could be called the “statehood narrative” -- ministries, positions and various titles that imply the existence of an actual independent state. In reality, the PA is about autonomy with limited authorities, more like a large municipality to administer the affairs of the population. This must all be reviewed in the context of a renewed national project. That is, the question of whether the PA should be dissolved or not must be viewed within a context of a broader vision about the aspired role of the PA at this stage and the nature of its formation. In a recent speech, President Abbas said the function of the PA may be reconsidered but he did not actually clarify what he meant. I don’t think there is any elaborate thought process on this and I think this question has been lacking for some time, not just now.
Do you think there is any point to the Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society? Who is actually capable of impacting Israeli public opinion in favor of a solution with the Palestinians?
There is a difference between what is right on principle and what is reality. On principle, in order for us to reach a solution, there must be an Israeli partner who participates in the vision of what a solution would look like with the Palestinians. However, at the same time, what used to be known as the Israeli left has become so weak it has no real political effectiveness anymore. I don’t think the Palestinians have the ability to revive this side of the equation. The Israeli left’s weakness is because of internal reasons; I think the main reason is the success of the Israeli state in neutralizing it in the face of external pressures given its influence in the United States primarily and in other countries as well. Hence, from the perspective of the Israeli right, the Zionist project in terms of the West Bank is one that is moving full-steam ahead. There is no need for them not to move in this direction. This, of course, weakened the Israeli left, especially in regards to normalization, where they thought they had made achievements. That is why I don’t think the Palestinians can have a big impact in this regard. However, this does not mean we should abandon the principle, which is the need for an Israeli side. Nonetheless, the main question in regards to the future is not this; it is what the new national project will be. This is the question that has been absent from public discussion. We must think in a new creative way on more than one level – at the organizational level, at the planning level, to see what can be done. Unfortunately, we are facing a new phase and I think it will be a lengthy one. We need to ask ourselves: what are the sources of Palestinian strength and how can we take advantage of and benefit from them? This is what we need to be thinking about.
How do you see the role of civil society and its institutions in the current phase? What is needed from them within the framework of the national project?
Many think civil society only means NGOs and this is a big mistake. What civil society institutions means are the organizations that do not belong to the state; that is, those relatively independent of the state. The most important of these institutions are the grassroots ones such as parties and unions of all kinds and not the NGOs, which in reality, are strengthened by these grassroots and popular institutions; adversely, their effectiveness and impact weakens in their absence. I think in the future, we must work on rebuilding these institutions, whether the various labor and vocational unions or political parties. The important thing is to rebuild the organizational power in society, which are all civil society institutions, the weakest of which are the NGOs because, like I said, lack real grassroots power. But when there is an organized strength comprised of unions and parties, NGOs can support these institutions and find the means of directing their own work within the framework of the national project. I think this should be our main task.
Do you feel it is necessary to hold elections at this stage?
Elections are important, but only under certain circumstances. First, they need to be possible, without any obstacles preventing them from being impartial and representative. Second, there must be a relatively stable political system and not a state of existential conflict like we have now. Both of these conditions are unavailable at this stage. No doubt, the elections are one source of legitimacy in independent political systems, but in the context of this liberation process, the PLO gained its legitimacy, not through elections but through resistance. This is the path Hamas took as well. The question is: at what stage are we now? Anyone who can provide answers to questions about the national project and how to work towards it will gain legitimacy. In any case, we can be excused for not holding elections right now because Israel will not allow Palestinian Jerusalemites to participate and it is inconceivable that elections are held without Jerusalem; this would be conceived as forsaking the city.
In what context do the latest funding conditions by the EU fall?
They fall within the context of Israeli pressure to neutralize boycott efforts in the form of the BDS movement. Israel fears this movement and is fighting it at every turn, including through these efforts to halt funding to Palestinian institutions that support the BDS. The first order of business for Israel in this regard is to target the institutions providing the ICC with information that will help it open an investigation or put war criminals on trial. Of course the EU will be put under this pressure. However, as we have seen, Palestinian NGOs took a strong position against any political conditions. This must be followed up; it is not enough to merely reverse the EU’s policy up until now. There must be ongoing and increasing efforts in this regard. This is a battle that must be waged and Palestinian representative offices in European countries have a role to play in this regard, which has been weak so far.